GARDEN THERAPY: MAN VS. NATURE: Man – 199,999 Nature – 1,000,000 – August 2021

By Mel Bellar
Scoring this battle is, of course, preposterous (and impossible), but feel free to
choose your own numbers; it will greatly depend on your point of view. Folks always ask me why something amiss is happening in the garden or with a certain plant. Often, I have no good explanation and respond that “nature is fickle”, because she is – full stop. Frankly, I have no better answer. But recently I have been hearing (and
using) the phrase, “It is a battle against nature”, more often and in different contexts. It haunts me as a concept.
The garden is often an analogy for life because it works so perfectly on so many levels. The garden is an arena where the gardener is trying to tame and work with nature, as is medicine, agriculture, architecture, engineering . . . In earlier times, man was much more in harmony with nature but over the past centuries we have been working harder and harder to exert our will over nature… and yes, often with a great degree of success
Lifespans have gotten longer (at least in the more developed world), many diseases have been tamed or eradicated, we can travel long distances in little time, and communicate around the world instantly. As a result of these advances, nature adapts and fights back with new diseases, climate change, invasive species (often due to globalization), roundup resistant weeds, and not necessarily happier people. I listened to a heady podcast recently with an anthropologist who researched hunters and gatherers and concluded that mankind was at its happiest before we settled down and started growing our own food! It was very interesting and there is a lot written about this, but as was pointed out in the podcast, evolution is basically about making babies and the success of a species to propagate and survive. Happiness does not really come into play. However, in my attempt at optimism, I proudly attest that I think gardens bring happiness. .
But, enough with the grandiose thinking. I realize that I am getting pretty “out there and above my pay grade” as a gardener and writer of a little garden column. What I do know for sure is that gardening is indeed a battle with nature and that if you wish to succeed, it is best to work with nature and compromise to some degree. Gardening is by its very definition a battle with nature; otherwise it would just be the “the wild.”
Many folks ask me to design a no to low maintenance garden (that is a very relative concept) and—despite fanciful wishes—there is no such thing as a no maintenance garden. Gardening is all about strategy and battle. The very definition of gardening is about shaping nature to our will.
One can design and install a beautiful garden and that is just the initial work. It involves clearing, digging, building, preparing the soil, planting and watering to get things established. Then the battle begins because nature wants to take it back, and if that new garden is not maintained on a regular basis the siege will happen in a surprisingly short amount of time. I have seen it happen many times and the longer you let it go the harder it is to get back.
Another relevant expression is that “nature abhors a vacuum” and that is seemingly very obvious. If you leave bare areas of soil in your garden, weeds or aggressive garden plants will quickly move in. And, if these weeds are not pulled, their roots will weave into the roots of your desired plants. It then quickly becomes difficult to pull them without digging things up to separate them. Yes, you can mulch to help deter weeds, but I prefer planting more densely so that the “good” plants fill in quickly and shade out and deter the weeds. This is only effective to a certain degree, however, and does create work to control the “good” plants
occasionally, to provide some clarity and air for the plants. There is no free lunch: nature insists on the battle. As discussed in last month’s column, edging is a very good way to keep grass (or weeds in many cases) from growing into the beds and is an effective tool in the battle. In addition to beating back the weeds and overgrown plants, the battle includes flopping plants, plants outgrowing their space, plants dying (they do have a life span), too little rain, too much rain, the wind and let us not forget the diseases and pests.
As I was driving and thinking about how to finish this column today, I realized that the battle against nature is exactly what gardening is and that I write about it all of the time in one way or another. I know I am making it sound like a discouraging pursuit and maybe a “losing battle”, but the whole joy of gardening is the battle. I realize that the other thing about the war is practicing acceptance when we lose a battle. Don’t let it discourage you and drive you out of the garden. We gardeners, have to love the battle, acceptand persevere.
More on the battle next month! ~
Mel Bellar is the owner of Zone4 Landscapes and a passionate
Andes gardener.